Earlier this summer, I spent a week driving around Eastern North Carolina. As a former Virginian and longtime DC-resident, I had no excuse avoiding North Carolina for as long as I have, but the road trip was a good first effort in correcting that mistake. Not unlike my home state of Virginia, North Carolina is also large and not just big, but it varies a lot by region. The coastal communities couldn’t be more different from the towns tucked away in the mountains and everything in between is a different universe altogether. While I certainly couldn’t tackle the entire state in just one short week, I did manage to see a lot of the Eastern side of the state. More than just see pretty sights though, I felt like I ate my way through the state, living the mantra that food really is love. What I discovered frankly surprised me. I found cuisine both traditional but also modern, with a lot of creative people doing some amazing things all over the state. While I certainly can’t call this the ultimate guide to eating in North Carolina, I did want to share just a few of the many exceptional North Carolina food experiences I enjoyed to show you all that the state is about a lot more than just BBQ.
That being said, I want to start out with the king of the southern classics and a type of cuisine for which North Carolina is especially well known – BBQ. BBQ is a tricky concept for Americans and definitely for international visitors to our shores to fully understand. When we say BBQ we mean smoked, slow-cooked meat, many times over a pit, that has sauce or rubs or some other spice agent added to it. Where you live in the US changes the definition but in Eastern North Carolina, locals have a very clear idea of what BBQ means to them. In towns like Edenton, Ayden or Kinston, BBQ is a whole hog that is slow-cooked to perfection over a massive pit for a period of many hours, infusing that great smoky taste into the meat itself. Where I’m from in Virginia, we would add a thick, ketchup-based sauce to the pork but that’s not how it’s done in Eastern North Carolina. In fact, that may indeed be a crime of some sort. No, instead there it’s all about preserving the taste of the meat itself, adding only vinegar, maybe some hot sauce, salt and pepper and that’s it. Served with some sides and eaten either as a dinner platter or on a sandwich, it may be simple but as I learned driving along the North Carolina BBQ Trail, that’s part of its beauty.
The best example I found during my romp through North Carolina was at the Skylight Inn, in Ayden, North Carolina. The meals are still served the same way as when they first opened in 1947, with the choice of sandwich or full meat platter along with coleslaw and cornbread. But that’s it. No fries, beans, hushpuppies or anything else that I’m used to when eating a great BBQ dinner. But after my first taste I realized that nothing else was needed – the meat was that good. Slightly charred bits of meat mixed in with the succulent and woody pork all combined to create what was honestly one of the best BBQ experiences of my life. I skipped the coleslaw, but the cornbread – which I normally don’t like – was amazing. Flat and infused with bacon drippings, it’s as an important a part of the dining experience at Skylight as is the meat itself.
As a Southerner, I feel that I can address the issue of southern cuisine without coming across as being obnoxious; at least that’s the hope. What we call southern food actually varies widely throughout the region, but at its core is a sense of homecoming. These are dishes that make you feel good on an emotional level, as well as tasting good. It’s about memories of family meals, picnics and warm summer days. While certainly not healthy, southern food is one of the most unique food cultures we as Americans enjoy; it’s a key aspect of our shared heritage and as such, it’s important to learn more about it. But North Carolina is full of young, creative chefs who want to pay homage to these important traditions, but in ways that are more modern, more interesting but no less healthy. Thank god for that, otherwise it would taste horrible.
There were a few dishes I enjoyed that I think best encapsulate what modern southern cuisine is all about. These bites have the same homey goodness that we all know and love, but with a more refined and modern palate.
Goat Cheese Hushpuppies – The Lifesaving Station Restaurant at the Sanderling Resort, Duck NC
Hushpuppies are one of my favorite side dishes and I honestly can’t imagine a BBQ meal without a few. For the uninitiated, hushpuppies are simply cornmeal balls that are deep-fried. Originally small bits that were fed to dogs to keep them quiet, hushpuppies today are I think one of the key tenets of great southern food. At the luxury Sanderling Resort on the Outer Banks though, the Lifesaving Station restaurant has elevated this simple dish into something truly special. Mixing the cornmeal with goat cheese and serving with a tarragon crème fraiche, the meal may be elevated but the taste is still amazing.
Grilled Pimento Cheese Sandwich – Geer Street Garden, Durham NC
Like so many other cities around the world, Durham has undergone a remarkable urban transformation, turning disused areas of the downtown into new, vibrant neighborhoods. That’s where I found the Geer Street Garden, a modern restaurant housed in a former gas station. Specializing in tasty but well-executed meals, as soon as I saw the Grilled Pimento Cheese sandwich I knew I had found my lunch. Otherwise known as the “caviar of the South,” pimento cheese is a relish or spread made from cheese, pimento peppers, mayonnaise and spices creating an odd but delicious mixture usually served best on crackers. The grilled cheese version was the ooey-gooey sandwich I had hope for and while certainly not light, was a brilliant interpretation of a regional favorite.
Small B&B Café, Pittsboro NC
Quirky and fun is the name of the game at the Small B&B Cafe, run by two Minneapolis transplants with a passion for all things local. Most of their menu is locally sourced from nearby farmers to the degree that they may not know their full menu until the day before. This is a casual, laid back and fun place to enjoy a great lunch and knowing that the food is healthy and responsibly grown makes it even better. The homemade soup of the day when I visited was corn, using produce the owners had bought the day before. If you think about it, it’s rare that we get to enjoy such fresh foods and that too is an important part of well-done Southern cuisine; using the harvests from local farmers to create something new and different.
For those who prefer a slightly elevated eating experience, don’t worry! North Carolina offers many such opportunities to expand your palate, including two restaurants that I don’t only consider to be amongst the best in the region, but certainly the country.
Chef & the Farmer, Kinston NC
Located in the small and unlikely town of Kinston is the Chef & the Farmer, which you may better know from the owner’s PBS documentary series “A Chef’s Life.” Chef Vivian Howard, a farmer’s daughter, returned from New York to open this celebration of Southern cuisine in her hometown and the results have been amazing. Reservations have to be made months in advance and people travel from around the world to try her food. She’s also resurrected an entire community in the process, bringing life to a formally dormant downtown. The meal was amongst the best I’ve ever enjoyed – a truly refined take on what southern cuisine really means. Deep fried collard greens that tasted like chips, a southern-style quail and desserts that would make most people weep. This is a refined dining experience, but a fun one too, which is really what southern food is all about.
The Fearrington House Inn
A Relais & Châteaux property, Fearrington is one of the top luxury hotels in the state, but like all Relais & Châteaux hotels it’s also home to an award-winning restaurant. Housed in the property’s 19th century farmhouse, walking in to the restaurant really is like visiting an old friend. But an old friend who is an expert chef, creating some of the most elevated and sophisticated meals you’ll ever try. Under the direction of British-expat Executive Chef Colin Bedford, the restaurant creates exceptional farm to fork cuisine that is as expertly crafted as you are likely to ever find and presented in a way that can only be called refined and elegant. Interestingly enough, Fearrington is also the only AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five-Star restaurant in the country to be Green Certified – a clear indication of their commitment to maintaining the purity of their country setting.
Bizarre (but wonderful) love affair with donuts
I have a sweet tooth and it’s hard for me to turn down any sweet. But my favorite thing to eat more than anything else is a well-done sweet pastry; donuts, fritters and cinnamon rolls all have a place permanently etched in my culinary heart and soul. Almost immediately, I noticed that for whatever reason North Carolinians share my love of pastries, because everywhere I went I found fantastic, many times one-off bakeries producing some of the best donuts I’ve ever discovered. I actually plan on writing a separate post all about the North Carolina donut phenomenon, but until then here are a few of my favorites.
Duck Donuts, Statewide
Duck Donuts may be the most well known of all the North Carolina donut shops thanks to their many locations and especially because of their beginnings along the Outer Banks. For many families, a stop at Duck Donuts signals the start of a great vacation and so it’s an emotional connection that Duck has made with many of its customers. But for me, it was all about the taste of those delicious sweet pastries. Duck offers guests the opportunity to create their own donuts, choosing from a variety of glazes and toppings. Each donut is then handmade to these specifications, which guarantees that everyone also receives donuts that are fresh and warm and that positively melt in your mouth.
Monuts Donuts, Durham NC
A Durham institution, Monuts has been feeding hungry undergrads for years, but locals and visitors too have discovered the odd deliciousness of their donuts. Monuts bake both cake and yeast doughnuts in a variety of flavors that change daily including: plain glazed, toasted amaretto, chocolate peanut butter buttercream, amongst others. While the donuts were good, I felt like they tried too hard to be different and zany, instead of just focusing on producing great, classic donuts. Still, it’s worth a stop because the donuts are indeed good and when paired with a cup of their rich coffee, is the perfect start to the day.
Tasty Bakery, Graham NC
This is a small bakery in a very small town but they win my award for the best donuts in North Carolina – at least from the ones I’ve tried. Tasty is a true, old-fashioned bakery with cookies, cakes and other sweet treats offered in addition to their famous donuts. Walking in, I could tell right away that this place was the real deal. Bakers get up early every day to produce these goods, just as they’ve done for years. At each bakery I first tried the classic plain glazed donut, in order to better compare, and the one I enjoyed at Tasty was hands down the best. Soft and gooey but with a slight crunch from the frying process, it wasn’t as messy as the ones found at Duck and actually tasted better. This is way off the better path, but if you’re in the area run don’t walk to try these beautiful pastries for yourself.
Phoenix Bakery, Pittsboro NC
I’m not sure why the small town of Pittsboro has so many great food options, but they do and one of my favorites was this small downtown bakery. The owner of Phoenix Bakery never thought she’d be a baker, but maybe that’s what makes her donuts in particular so amazing. Ignoring convention, she bakes using mostly local ingredients and never adds anything you wouldn’t be able to find in a grocery store. She also bakes her donuts instead of frying them, creating a pastry that is delicious and completely unlike anything else I’d tried before. They’re most famous for their take on the Boston Cream, and I can attest that it was as good as it looks.
Wow, so this post is a lot longer than I thought it would be, but that’s just a testimony to the great food found throughout North Carolina. I barely scratched the surface and only traveled around a small area of the state, and yet food was an incredibly important part of my trip. That’s one reason why I love this part of the country where I’m from, the focus on making sure people are happy and comfortable is an important part of the culture. In China, people great you by asking if you’ve eaten yet. That same thought, and the importance of food in everyday life, could easily be applied to the Southern states and as I learned, North Carolina in particular.